US troops during a regular patrol near Kabul. File/Reuters
Robert Burns, Associated Press
It took only two months for US invaders to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, a seemingly tidy success against a government that had given refuge to 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Twenty years later, the United States is withdrawing — visions of victory long vanished and an ascendant Taliban arguably within reach of restoring their rule.
Afghanistan proved to be a lesson in the limits of America’s military power.
It demonstrated the seeming paradox that it is possible to win the battles and still lose the war. Or at least that a technologically superior force can kill more efficiently than its enemy yet fail to achieve a final result resembling victory.
It showed that in the 21st century, it takes more than a conquering army, even one as well armed as America’s, to convert the overthrow of a government, even one as tenuous as the Taliban’s, into a lasting success. It showed that it takes, at a minimum, an understanding of local politics, history and culture that the Americans were slow to acquire.
The United States underestimated how much its presence as an occupier fueled Taliban motivation to fight and limited the Kabul government’s ability to unite. Although bin Laden eventually was killed and his Al Qaeda network blunted as an international threat, Afghans are still caught in a cycle of violence and misrule with no end in sight.
In his book, “The American War in Afghanistan, A History,” Carter Malkasian, a former adviser to senior US military leaders in Afghanistan and Washington, says one reason for the futility of the American effort was the influence of Islam and resistance to foreign occupation. Those were factors, he says, that were not well understood by the Americans.
“The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on what it meant to be Afghan,” he wrote. “It prodded men and women to defend their honor, their religion, and their home. It dared young men to fight. It animated the Taliban. It sapped the will of Afghan soldiers and police.”
The US military may have missed opportunities to stabilise Afghanistan in the early years after ousting the Taliban, which had run the country as an international pariah since 1996. But the bigger question is whether the military, after its initial success, was miscast in the lead role of transporting Afghanistan from chaos to stability.
The US military does not fight wars entirely on its own terms. It operates through civilian direction. Although civilian leaders may be accused of having overreached with visions of building Afghanistan into a democracy capable of defending itself, the military eventually embraced that goal. Claims by senior military officers of having “turned a corner” toward success in Afghanistan were repeated so regularly that critics wondered whether the military was going in circles.
Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general with a rare combination of high-level military and diplomatic experience in Afghanistan, said the US military initially balked at an open-ended mission of nation-building in an impoverished country traumatized by decades of civil war.
“But it warmed to the task,” he said, and the United States became further entangled as it pursued a military strategy not informed by realistic policy debates in Washington about what outcome was achievable and at what cost.
By numbers alone, the costs were enormous. Tens of thousands of Afghan government forces and civilians were killed. The United States lost more than 2,440 troops, and the allies lost more than 1,100. The US spent hundreds of billions, and even after the withdrawal, the Biden administration plans to ask Congress to spend billions more in support of Afghan soldiers — even to continue paying their salaries.
The war, conceived in the traumatic aftermath of the hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, devolved from the triumphant moment of ousting the Taliban from Kabul to nearly a decade of revived insurgency, starting in 2005. The killing of bin Laden in 2011 seemed like an opportunity to wind down the war, but it dragged on.
Experts disagree on the central reason the US failed to stop a Taliban resurgence after its initial losses, but a contributing factor was a decision by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. Within a few years that war became so all-consuming that Afghanistan was officially relegated to a secondary priority.
“Making it a sideshow was a fatal choice,” Eikenberry said.
A full decade after bin Laden’s demise, President Joe Biden decided that continuing the war was senseless. He announced in April that he was ending it, arguing that waiting for an ideal moment to leave was a formula for never leaving, and citing the pullout commitment the Trump administration had made to the Taliban in 2020. The last troops are to depart by Aug. 31.
Biden argued that the central purpose of starting the war — to crush Al Qaeda and to prevent Afghanistan from again being a breeding ground for another attack on the United States — had been achieved, leaving no reason to further risk US troops. The risk that remains is a collapse of the Afghan government and a return of extremist threats, although Biden has promised to keep a US diplomatic presence in Kabul and to push for a peace settlement.
The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is looking unstoppable as they capture the big provincial cities of Kandahar, Herat and Ghazni without meeting effective resistance from Afghan government forces. Afghan soldiers and security forces are fleeing, surrendering
The security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, prompting many to second-guess President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops by Sept. 11. This is an understandable emotional reaction, but it isn’t supported
With the United States military presence in Afghanistan effectively over, the country faces an uncertain future with Taliban attacks rampant and the threat of civil war looming. Fears are growing that the loss of vital American air cover
The warm welcome that Chinese President Xi Jinping got at Riyadh on Wednesday, and the important agreements signed between the two countries, show that the global scenario is taking a new shape, and it would not perhaps be the exclusive domain of the United States and European countries. China imports 25 per cent of its
A month into the nation’s largest strike involving higher education, the work stoppage by University of California academic workers at 10 campuses is causing stress for many students who are facing canceled classes, no one to answer their questions and uncertainty about how they will be graded as they wrap up the year.
The lament of the death of the high street is not a new tune. It’s been played across the North, the West Midlands and the more deprived parts of the rest of the UK for several years now. The story of boarded up shop fronts, anti-social behaviour and plunging civic pride has been a central pillar of the discourse around levelling up since
This holiday season, working families across America are struggling through the worst bout of inflation in decades. A typical household has lost more than $7,000 in purchasing power since January 2021 due to prices rising faster than incomes. The primary cause of this inflation has been dramatic increases in federal spending